Commentary

A glimpse into trade deadline day

Updated: March 3, 2009, 10:48 AM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

What will general managers go through over the final days before Wednesday's trade deadline? ESPN.com's Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun spoke with six GMs who shared their war stories from deadlines past, stories that give you an idea of what to expect.


Brad Stuart Kyle Terada/US PresswireBrad Stuart signed a new four-year contract with the Red Wings this past summer.

Ken Holland, Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings have never been shy about adding pieces come trade deadline time. Over the past decade or so, Chris Chelios, Bill Ranford, Larry Murphy, Jamie Macoun, Wendel Clark, Mathieu Schneider, Todd Bertuzzi and Brad Stuart have all made their way to Joe Louis Arena for late-season runs.

The Wings haven't won the Cup every year they've made a deal, but GM Ken Holland said if you just judge deadline deals on whether a team wins a championship, then every year there are 29 teams who go bust at the deadline.

"If you don't win the Cup people think you made bad moves," he told ESPN.com this week.

Instead, Holland points to his team's recent moves as an illustration of how winning a Cup is a process and how deadline deals are a part of it.

In the two seasons prior to the lockout, Detroit was knocked off in the first round (2003 by Anaheim) and second round (2004 by Calgary). In 2006, despite winning the Presidents' Trophy, the Wings were upset by eighth-seeded Edmonton. The next season, Holland raised eyebrows by acquiring Bertuzzi, who had played just seven games during the 2006-07 season because he had a bad back, for prospect Shawn Matthias and a second-round pick. It was a move that many would consider one of Holland's rare missteps since taking over as GM in June 1997.

Holland views it differently. He recalled Bertuzzi's playing well in a physical first-round series against Calgary, a series Detroit won in six games.

In the 2007 playoffs, Robert Lang, acquired at the 2004 trade deadline, and Schneider, another deadline acquisition from before the lockout, helped the Red Wings come back to defeat favored San Jose in the second round and push Anaheim to six games in a series that was painfully close.

"I think it worked out beautifully," Holland said. "We needed some playoff success to keep people believing in the program."

Bertuzzi, Lang and Schneider moved on, but Holland points to that playoff year as being crucial to the team's 2008 championship run.

"We didn't win the Cup with Schneider and Lang, but we did a lot of winning," Holland said. "When we were challenged in '08, we were ready for the challenge. If we lose in the first round in '07, I don't know that we win the Cup in '08."

Holland equates the trade period to a student's preparing for exams. Be prepared. Like many GMs, Holland will work the phones and assemble a list of players that might be available given a team's performance as it heads toward the trade deadline. Then, it's a question of whether Holland and his staff believe the assets they have to offer, generally picks and young players in the minors, represent good value for the piece they're looking to add. Sometimes, it's not Plan A that makes the difference, but an alternative plan.

Last year, Holland and Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi chatted at length about veteran defenseman Rob Blake. Holland was interested in Blake given his Stanley Cup experience, but the defenseman wasn't interested in waiving his no-trade clause (he remained with the Kings before signing with San Jose as a free agent in the offseason).

So, early in the afternoon of deadline day, Holland and Lombardi swapped calls and turned their attention to another Kings defenseman, Brad Stuart. Lombardi wanted second- and third-round picks. Like a home buyer, Holland came up with some comparables for other defensemen of Stuart's age and productivity, and the two teams agreed on second- and fourth-round picks for the big defenseman who went on to play a key role during the finals against Pittsburgh. Stuart later signed a multiyear deal with the Wings.

"It's got to work for both teams," Holland said of the process. "There's no one way to do deals. There's no cookie-cutter way to make a deal." --Scott Burnside


Marian HossaJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesMarian Hossa played a key role in helping the Pens reach last season's Cup finals.

Don Waddell, Atlanta Thrashers

It was the biggest blockbuster of this past year's deadline, and it nearly didn't happen. But we'll get to that in a bit.

Let's pick it up at the midway point of the 2007-08 season. Thrashers GM Don Waddell realized it was time to get the ball rolling on moving Marian Hossa, a player slated for unrestricted free agency at season's end. After giving up some futures to get Keith Tkachuk the previous season at the deadline, Waddell couldn't allow Hossa to walk away July 1 without getting anything in return.

"We spent a lot of time throughout the season trying to sign him," Waddell told ESPN.com, agreeing to walk us through the trade. "We knew by the first week of January that we weren't going to be able to sign him. Then, we took the next two to three weeks to look at the teams where we thought there would be a good fit and who could afford him with the cap. By the first week of February, he had a list of 11-12 teams, had broken down in terms of who they could afford to give up, had a good sense of their depth charts. We did a lot of homework before we ever made that first phone call. We were as prepared as we felt we could be heading into trade talks."

About three weeks out from the deadline, teams began to call Waddell and communicate their interest in Hossa. Waddell set the price -- a steep one.

"I was pretty up-front with them, saying I wanted players I could put on my team immediately, and I wanted some young prospects because, the year before, we had traded our first pick and I wanted to recapture something that I could put into my system."

One team, which Waddell would not name, called and asked for a chance to negotiate an extension with Hossa.

"Yes, I had one team that asked that their deal be contingent on being able to talk to the player," said Waddell. "I initially said no. Then, I came back and said, 'If we can reach a deal, and it's just contingent on you talking to him, I will do that. But letting you talk to him before we have a deal, if I do that, then I might have 10 other teams trying to do that. That's not right and it's not fair.' We never got to the point where we could reach a deal. That was about a week out."

Despite "lots of talks" with Montreal, Hossa was still a Thrasher as deadline day arrived, and Waddell had no idea what was coming his way on one of the most stressful days of his career.

"Teams started calling again around 7 a.m. At this point, I've got about five teams that are coming at me on this. But it's interesting, from 9 a.m. to about 11:30 a.m., it went almost dormant quiet. I'm assuming what happened is that teams wanted to touch base with me in the morning, make sure I knew they were still in it and see where I was at, but then used that window after that to see what else was out there."

Fast forward to 2 p.m. ET, one hour before the deadline.

"At 2 p.m., I've got it narrowed down to three teams," said Waddell. "Pittsburgh was in, but they weren't leading. Detroit was the other team in the group with Montreal. Pittsburgh called me in the morning and asked me where I was, and [Pens GM] Ray [Shero] was pretty sure they weren't going to be in it. The price was going to be too high for him. Ray and I have a good relationship, so it was an open dialogue.

"I didn't hear from Ray for four hours or so. It was probably close to 2 p.m. when I heard from Ray again. At that point, I still didn't feel like he was leading the charge. If I had to make the deal at 2 p.m., it would not have been with Pittsburgh."

It would have been with Montreal, we believe.

"From 2 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., I touched base with the other two teams. Detroit told us, at this point, that they were done tweaking, this was the best they could do. So I knew where [Wings GM Ken Holland] was at. By 2:30, Ray touched base again. I told him, 'It's getting close to the deadline. If you're in, you better step up quickly.' He asked me exactly what it was going to take. We were at two assets at that point, but Esposito and Armstrong were not in the deal. He called me back around 2:35 p.m. and threw in Esposito's name. I said to him if he threw Armstrong in as well, we had a deal. That was about 2:40. He said, 'I can't do it, I can't do it.' I said, 'Are you telling me you're out?' He said, 'Give me five minutes.'"

Those were the longest five minutes of Waddell's life. By 2:50, Shero still hadn't called back.

"So, I called Ray back," said Waddell. "He said, 'Hang on, I'm on the other line with Mario.' He kept me on hold for five more minutes. Now it's 2:55 and I'm sweating bullets because I don't even know at this point if I have time to make the call to Montreal. I'm on hold, felt like forever, so I picked up a different phone line and got Ray's assistant and I said, 'Tell him to pick up the damn phone or I'm hanging up on him.'"

Shero came on, and was still unsure.

"I said to Ray, 'I know you're giving up good assets, but you're getting a hell of a player and a hell of a guy. He's going to help you get to where you want to get to.' He said, 'Alright, I'll do it.' I'm telling you, it was 2:57 p.m. at that time.

"If that deal falls through, I don't even know if I had time to dial [Habs GM] Bob Gainey and get that deal done. That's how far it went to the wire. I got to tell you, it was very, very nerve-wracking."

The final trade on Feb. 26, 2008: Atlanta traded wingers Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh for winger Colby Armstrong, center Erik Christensen, prospect Angelo Esposito and Pittsburgh's first-round pick in the 2008 NHL draft.

It was a deal that helped both teams. The Thrashers got an impressive haul to help them plug the holes from the Tkachuk deal. The Penguins went to the Cup finals. -- Pierre LeBrun


Doug WeightJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesDoug Weight's early acquisition in 2006 gave him more time to adjust in Carolina.

Jim Rutherford, Carolina Hurricanes

Does the veteran general manager and longtime player find the trade deadline an exciting or nerve-wracking time of year?

"No, I don't view it as an exciting time of the year," Rutherford told ESPN.com this week. "It's just another stage, another part of the season."

In this stage, like the draft and training camp, every team has to make important decisions, both short-term and for the future, Rutherford said.

As the deadline approaches, Rutherford and his staff may draw up a wish list of players they would like to add to their team. Then, they'll go through that list and ask themselves if there is a realistic possibility any of those players can be acquired given the market and Carolina's own budget.

"In a lot of ways, the media and the fans always expect something is going to happen," Rutherford said.

Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it happens when you don't expect it.

Rutherford recalled being in Hartford as Whalers GM before the franchise moved to Carolina. The Whalers weren't in playoff contention and Rutherford expected things to be quiet, but ended up making three or four deals in about 10 minutes just before the deadline. "Quite frankly, I would prefer to do things earlier in the going," Rutherford said.

In 2006, when the Canes were gearing up for their first Stanley Cup run, Rutherford did both, acting early and again as time ticked away before the deadline. Rutherford had his sights set on Doug Weight, who was set to become an unrestricted free agent and one of the most sought after players in the marketplace. After going back and forth with old friend and Blues GM Larry Pleau, Rutherford obtained Weight on Jan. 30, 2006, well in advance of the deadline. The Hurricanes sent a first-round pick and two fourth-round picks along with Jesse Boulerice and Mike Zigomanis and the rights to prospect Magnus Kahnberg for Weight and prospect Erkki Rajamaki.

"We didn't want to get in a bidding war at the deadline," Rutherford explained. "I was excited about the deal. I knew that teams we were competing against were after him. It just all fell into place. You just felt good about it."

That would have been it for Rutherford had Erik Cole not suffered a severe neck injury after being driven into the boards by Pittsburgh's Brooks Orpik on March 4. All of a sudden, Rutherford needed another piece. As the hours slipped away before the March 9 deadline, Rutherford received a call from then-Pittsburgh GM Craig Patrick about veteran forward Mark Recchi.

Earlier discussions had ended quickly as Patrick asked far more for Recchi than what Rutherford was willing to pay. "Leading up to the deadline, you hear some wild asking prices, so you basically you just back away," Rutherford said.

Was Recchi on the back burner at the time of Patrick's late call? Maybe not on the stove at all, Rutherford said. But when Patrick called back on deadline day, the asking price had dropped significantly and Rutherford sent prospects Niklas Nordgren and Krys Kolanos and a second-round pick to the Penguins for Recchi.

So what happens after a deal? Everyone is expecting the new player to make an immediate impact, Rutherford said. The coach is waiting for it, the fans and media are waiting for it. The player certainly wants it to happen, Rutherford said. Sometimes, they want it to happen too much. "It takes time," he said.

It took time for both Recchi and Weight to adjust to playing for coach Peter Laviolette and the Hurricanes; but, in the end, both made important contributions to Carolina's run to its first Stanley Cup (each posted 16 postseason points).

This year's deadline? "From what I'm hearing, the price for players is too high for us," said Rutherford, whose team is in the hunt for one of the final playoff berths in the East.

Of course, that can all change in a minute. -- Scott Burnside


Ryan SmythAP Photo/John Ulan, CPRyan Smyth's tearful exit from Edmonton was one of the memorable moments from the 2007 deadline.

Kevin Lowe, Edmonton Oilers

Oilers president Kevin Lowe sighed at the other end of the phone line. Even two years later, it's a chain of events that produces a few sighs. In the end, it was a gutsy call to pull the trigger on a deal that resulted in the most popular modern-day Oiler, Ryan Smyth, packing his bags.

"Anybody going into that situation where you've got a player that's going into his UFA year, there's the pros and cons of trading or not trading," Lowe, who was GM back then, recently told ESPN.com. "And when they're a higher-end player like Ryan, the decision becomes even more difficult because you don't want to send a message to the fans that you've in some way given up on the season. Mind you, we were decimated by injuries."

The Oilers weren't going to make the playoffs, so Lowe knew he had to protect his asset either way. He couldn't let Smyth walk away July 1. But let's back up two or three weeks before the trade deadline.

Lowe was doing his homework for possible trade partners, but he never really thought it would come to that.

"I guess in the back of my mind, I was always thinking we'd get Ryan done," said Lowe. "So the reality of trading him would never come to fruition. But also knowing that anything could happen, that's my favorite motto, you got to be prepared. Just like we did in [Chris] Pronger's case, we sort of targeted teams that we thought might be a fit or have some interest and be willing to give up some young players."

About a week before the Feb. 27, 2007 trade deadline, the GMs gathered in Naples, Fla., for meetings. That's when Islanders GM Garth Snow showed serious interest in Smyth.

"We probably targeted about a dozen teams or so," said Lowe. "But I do remember talking with Garth in Naples."

On the eve of deadline day, the Oilers made another contact offer to Smyth's camp (led by agent Don Meehan). It was rejected.

"We made what we felt was a strong offer," said Lowe. "I think Donnie phoned me either late that night before or the morning of. Suddenly, it became evident that we might not get him signed."

Suddenly, everyone in the Oilers' front office realized the unthinkable might have to happen -- they might have to trade Captain Canada.

"Once we finally made the decision that we weren't going to meet their contract demands, we already knew what the Islanders were prepared to offer," said Lowe. ''I think as far as anybody else [other teams] in the hunt, I don't think there really was at that point. The Islanders had the best offer."

The deal was done, and it shocked one of hockey's greatest markets. Smyth was gone. Few will ever forget his tearful exit. Looking back, we're sure both sides would like to play it over again. In the end, they were only $100,000 a year apart on salary, Edmonton offering $5.4 million a year and Smyth's camp countering with $5.5 million.

"In our minds, we had established a value to Ryan [in the cap system] and his intangibles, what he brings," said Lowe. "Everyone respects Ryan for his efforts and some of the things that he brings, but he's not an elite player. So we had fixed a number as to what he should eat up in the cap, plus we added a premium to it because he had been for the team for so long and was such a popular player."

The final deal: Edmonton traded Smyth to the Islanders for center Ryan O'Marra, forward Robert Nilsson and a first-round pick in the 2007 draft (Alex Plante).

That summer, Meehan got Smyth $6.25 million a year in Colorado. And it just goes to show you, anything can happen on deadline day. That was a trade Lowe never thought he would make. -- Pierre LeBrun


Jamie LangenbrunnerAP Photo/Paul ChiassonJamie Langenbrunner hasn't left the Devils since they acquired him in 2002.

Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey Devils

Devils GM Lou Lamoriello had already performed shock treatment on this team in January 2002 when he fired coach Larry Robinson and replaced him with Kevin Constantine. But things still didn't sit well with the veteran hockey man, so he pulled the trigger on a huge deadline deal.

On March 19, 2002, Dallas traded center Joe Nieuwendyk and winger Jamie Langenbrunner to New Jersey for center Jason Arnott, winger Randy McKay and New Jersey's first-round pick (later traded away by Dallas) in the 2002 draft.

"At that time, our team needed sort of a wake-up call," recalled Lamoriello. "We weren't really, in my mind, achieving where we should. Sometimes you have to make decisions that you don't like to make. The two players that we gave up, Jason Arnott and Randy McKay, were real good players for us. But we had the opportunity to get Joe Nieuwendyk and Jamie Langenbrunner."

In Nieuwendyk, the Devils were adding a quality veteran with two Stanley Cup rings, a star player oozing character and leadership. Langenbrunner was the lesser-known quantity at the time, but Lamoriello had long ago put him on his wish list.

"Jamie I had on the Olympic team [in Nagano in 1998]," said Lamoriello. "In fact, Jamie was the next player to be selected when we put the team together, and when Shawn McEachern came down with a sore back, I called Jamie and I'll never forget the conversation I had with him. I said, 'I know that your wife is expecting any minute, so if you feel this isn't the right thing to do now …' He didn't even let me finish talking. He said, 'What's my flight arrangements?'

"In saying that, I had seen his character and work ethic with the Olympic program, and when we had that opportunity to get those two players, we felt really good. It certainly paid major dividends the following year when we won the Cup."

And that's the point. While the deal itself didn't pay off right off the bat (the Devils lost in the first round in 2002), those two players had a huge part in the 2003 Cup-winning team.

"Joe Nieuwendyk was hurt in the playoffs of '03, but his presence and character played a role," said Lamoriello.

Lamoriello couldn't remember the exact time frame of the talks with former Dallas GM Bob Gainey, but knows it's a deal that didn't just pop up on deadline day.

"It was a big deal, so it wasn't something that just happened in two minutes," said Lamoriello. "It's either going to work or it's never going to work. And both Bob and I were in similar situations at that time, as far as the thought process of what both our teams needed. Two quality players were traded for two quality players. It was a win-win for both teams."

Dangling a star player like Arnott would bring a lot of attention, but Lamoriello doesn't remember being close with any other team on a deal.

"Funny, but I never remember the things that don't happen," he said with a laugh. "Unless it was something that was very, very close, and there really wasn't at that time. This was something that Bob and I talked about and found a way to get done." --Pierre LeBrun


Peter ForsbergAP Photo/John RussellPeter Forsberg played 17 regular-season games and five playoff games for the Preds.

David Poile, Nashville Predators

The veteran hockey manager has seen the view from both sides of a fence that separates the buyers from the sellers at trade deadline time. For years, as the small-market Predators struggled to compete economically and on the ice, Poile would peel off potential free agents or more expensive veterans at the deadline, stockpiling draft picks and prospects.

Then, when the team began to solidify before the lockout, he made a bold move to acquire Steve Sullivan prior to the 2004 trade deadline and the Predators made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They have not missed the playoffs since.

With the Predators enjoying their strongest season ever during the 2006-07 campaign, Poile went after star center Peter Forsberg, then with the Philadelphia Flyers, in the hopes of pushing his team over the playoff hump.

The process of buying and selling isn't all that different, Poile insisted. Regardless if you're adding a piece for the immediate future, you can't ever lose sight of the big picture. The Forsberg deal was a possibility because the Predators believed they had a chance to go deep in the playoffs and because Poile believed he still had enough assets to move forward even if the deal didn't work out.

"I really don't think there's one [buying or selling] that's easier. They both have elements of both short- and long-term thinking," Poile told ESPN.com this week.

Back in 2007, Poile realized there would be stiff competition for Forsberg's services. He realized his team would be better with Forsberg in the mix. He realized if Forsberg went to another Western Conference team, the Preds' chances of advancing would diminish.

To secure a player like Forsberg, though, meant Poile would have to produce a top package and he wanted to move quickly to secure the deal. He and Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren spoke almost daily. Each night, Poile worried he would wake up and Forsberg would have landed somewhere else.

"That's why you need to have a Plan B or a Plan C," Poile said.

Finally, in the early evening hours of Feb. 15, Poile and Holmgren finished the deal. It was a whopper. Poile gave up Scottie Upshall, Ryan Parent and first- and third-round draft picks. The first round pick came back to Nashville, but it was a lot.

Forsberg, battling foot issues that have curtailed his playing time in recent years, played 17 regular-season games and five postseason games as the Preds were eliminated in five games by the San Jose Sharks for the second straight season.

Still, Poile said he would do the deal again.

"When you trade for a player like Peter Forsberg, there's a rush that goes through your franchise," Poile said. "It was probably as an exciting time as we've had in the franchise. It was certainly worth the risk." -- Scott Burnside

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.